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Hutchinson’s Mark Grewe shows off an ax, one of the latest additions to his collection of axes and tools. He pulled it from the Crow River as part of his new hobby, magnet fishing. But more importantly, he’s helped clean the city’s waterways.

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The Zetahs are telling a new story about Minnesota agriculture
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Central Minnesota is filled with farms, and many have stories to tell that in some cases go back 100 years or more. But about 6 miles north of Hutchinson, a couple of farmers hope to write a new story of Minnesota agriculture. One they say works more closely with ecology and is a natural rebuttal to industrial agriculture.

Daniel and Stephanie Zetah run New Story Farm, a regenerative farm the pair share with Daniel’s parents on the land where he grew up. But what is regenerative farming?

“I would define regenerative farming as a practice of farming that works with nature rather than against it, and a system that is either closed loop or going towards closed loop where there are no off-farm inputs,” Daniel said. “The way Ecology 101 works is, the waste of one species is the food of another. So everything is part of that ecology, and that ecology is a closed loop in a way.”

Before the two met and started their regenerative farm, they lived very different lifestyles. Daniel worked in food production and as a compliance officer for chemical spraying in Tasmania. Stephanie, on the other hand, grew up in the South and earned a degree in graphic design.

“I had a corporate job and a house and a car and all that stuff, but I was not fulfilled,” she said. “I didn’t know what I wanted to do, but I knew that 10 years of that was enough, and I wanted to do something else. So I sold my house, most of my belongings and I went searching for something.”

What she found was an intentional community in North Carolina, and that is where the two met. As part of the community, Stephanie’s job was to help with a small veggie garden to feed members of the community, and that was when she discovered her interest in farming.

Eventually, Daniel brought Stephanie back to the farm where he was raised. Although she was hesitant at first, she quickly saw the potential in Minnesota soil.

“All of my farming experience up to that point was down South, where the soil is quite depleted and it’s really heavy in clay, so one must work quite hard to grow even the simplest of things,” she said. “So he brings me up to Minnesota, he leads me out to the pasture and digs down about a foot and he brings the soil up to my face and I say, ‘Wow, this is amazing. This is compost, did you make this?’ And he just chuckled and said, ‘No, this is the soil here.’ And I was like, ‘Wait, this is natural? I did not know soil existed anywhere in the world that looked like compost without human intervention.’ And then he explained that the whole farm is that way, and it goes down several feet, and a lightbulb went off, ‘Oh my gosh, this is where you’re supposed to farm.’ Minnesota is where you’re supposed to farm. The soil is just begging for it, and you don’t have to work as hard.”

And so the couple moved to Daniel’s home and began planning their farm. But unlike some farms, they had a different goal to work with nature.

Regenerative agriculture focuses on conservation, topsoil regeneration and biodiversity, among other things. Some of the practices of a regenerative farm are utilizing farm waste and adding composted material from sources outside the farm, which the Zetahs do through an agreement with a local grocery store. They receive produce that the store deems no longer suitable to sell, and they use it for compost or feed if it is not rotten.

It's all part of reducing waste and creating a closed-loop ecology on their farm.

“What we’re doing is nothing new,” Stephanie said. “We’re just recreating what farms looked like 100 years ago. They were regenerative farmers before the term regenerative farm meant anything, but they were regenerative farmers out of necessity and survival. We’re doing it as a principle.”

Telling the new story

Along with their focus on regenerative farming, the other important part of the Zetahs’ mission is education. They want to teach people, especially children, about where their food comes from, how it’s produced, and how to be good stewards of the planet. They hope their little farm in McLeod County can help start a new story for the future, which is where the farm gets its name.

“We’re trying to create a different story so people can envision something else,” Daniel said. “I tell people a lot of times, if I asked you to name five post-apocalyptic novels or movies, you’d be able to rattle off five in a matter of a minute. But if I asked you to list five utopic novels or movies, you’d have a really hard time. It seems like humans have a really difficult time imagining a future where we’re not eating each other or destroying everything on the planet. If we have that lack of imagination toward a future that isn’t post-apocalyptic, then how are we ever going to get anywhere other than that?”

In that spirit, the Zetahs regularly host public gatherings and welcome classrooms and homeschooled children to visit their farm, take tours, feed the animals and learn about food production. A couple public gatherings are planned for coming weeks.

“If we don’t share this and we don’t try to help people understand how to connect more to nature and where their food comes from, it seems a bit hollow,” Daniel said.

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Pulling the plug: After running afoul of MnDOT, city must find another outlet for charging station
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Litchfield appeared ready to enter the still somewhat novel world of electrical vehicles when it approved installation of four charging stations around the city.

The first station went up during the reconstruction of U.S. Highway 12/Sibley Avenue this summer, installed on the west side of Central Park. It appeared ready for use as soon as the street was opened.

And then, as the City Council learned Tuesday night, someone essentially tripped over the power cord.

“Some miscommunication and a lot of left-hand, right-hand, non-action led to this installation in a non-permitted location,” City Administrator Dave Cziok wrote in a memo included in the council agenda packet.

His memo was accompanied by a letter from Kelly Brunkhorst, assistant district engineer for the Minnesota Department of Transportation, who wrote that the charging station “must be immediately removed,” because the station was installed without a permit from MnDOT.

Though MnDOT supports charging stations in approved areas “the current location is not acceptable,” Brunkhorst said.

Cziok told the City Council that the station will likely be removed in the next couple of weeks.

State law prohibits commercial enterprises — electric vehicle users would pay to use the charging station — within a trunk highway right of way without a permit.

“MnDOT is willing to assist the City in determining an acceptable location for this EV Charging Station and is also willing to provide reasonable technical assistance,” Brunkhorst’s letter said.

City Council members expressed disappointment and bewilderment over how installation of the charging station could have proceeded – with assistance from the project manager and even knowledge of on-site MnDOT employees — if it was not permissible.

Cziok explained that those on-site assumed the city had obtained the proper permitting, and the city did not realize permitting was necessary.

“Staff engineers were working with contractors on the project … similar to how we did with the clock (installed in the 200 block of North Sibley),” Cziok said, later adding that “we’ve got some clarification that needs to be had.”

Regardless, the city will be responsible for the cost of removal of the station and restoration of the area in which it now stands, according to the MnDOT letter.

“It is a bit of a disappointment for myself,” Cziok said.

Mayor Keith Johnson shared that disappointment, saying “it’s unfortunate” to have to move the station, and suggesting that perhaps it could be moved to another location around Central Park, keeping it in downtown to entice those who would use it to stop and spend time at restaurants and other businesses on main street.

“I was really excited about the opportunity to physically tie someone to downtown through a cord,” Cziok said of the charging station’s location. “I felt we were putting our best foot forward with that location

Council member Darlene Kotelnicki said the charging station saga has illustrated that “life is 50-50,” explaining that in recent days she had received correspondence from two people. One seemed upset that a futuristic structure like a charging station would be considered for placement in a historic district. Meanwhile, the other person congratulated the city on its forward thinking of adding a charging station

“If we have to move it, then let’s put it in a better place,” Kotelnicki concluded.

Litchfield City Council sets preliminary levy
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Litchfield City Council approved a preliminary 2021 levy Sept. 8 that calls for a 5 percent increase over the current levy amount.

The total levy would equate to $2,974,000 in property taxes collected, funding a general budget of $5,963,358.

“These local tax dollars usually provide about one-third of all revenues and are by far the largest revenue source within our control,” City Administrator Dave Cziok wrote in a memo to the council. “As always, our goal is to provide the council with a budget that is ‘business as usual’ and doesn’t contain any operational changes.”

The council’s passage of a 5 percent levy increase might have surprised some, given that Cziok recommended a levy increase of less than 1 percent in his memo. However, council members took a more aggressive approach to revenue after hearing Cziok speak about the levy versus the city tax capacity.

Some also stressed the “preliminary” in preliminary levy, given that the levy amount can be reduced, but not increased, any time before the budget public hearing in December at which the levy will be finalized.

“I am not saying I want a 5 percent increase,” Council member Darlene Kotelnicki said prior to voting along with all other council members to approve the preliminary levy. “I’m just saying I want to have that ability.”

With many uncertainties caused by the coronavirus pandemic and its impact on the national and local economy, setting a higher levy now allows more flexibility before setting the final levy, most agreed.

Cziok shared a chart showing the city’s levy in relation to its net tax capacity. While the levy has maintained a fairly gradual increase since 2002, the tax capacity has shown more volatility, with a rapid, $1 million increase between 2006 and 2010, along with an approximate $500,000 dip between 2011 and 2014. The tax capacity has been spiking again in the past three years.

“When we look at this crystal ball … right now, the real estate market continues to do well,” Cziok said. “We’re going to see an increase in net tax capacity next year as well.”

Though he was ready to tell the council that his proposed “as is” minimum levy of less than 1 percent — increasing the 2021 total levy by $18,500 — would be workable, Cziok said, he changed his mind after reviewing the city’s tax capacity.

“Administration can stand up here and tell you, $18,500 gets us to where, you know, staff can operate underneath that budget, and we’ll be fine,” Cziok said. “We were ready to present that option. I thought that was the most viable option for us until we really started to dig into where the net tax capacity was.”

Without some levy increase, the gap between tax capacity and service expectations could grow and at some point force a significant increase.

Council member Vern Loch Jr. supported the higher levy amount, he said, because it is more in line with the city’s tax capacity and could help prevent that scenario.

Mayor Keith Johnson wondered how a 5 percent increase in the levy might affect individual homeowners whose property value has not increased. Cziok said he couldn’t answer that question Tuesday because there still are too many variables.

“I don’t know the relationship right now between what happened on the commercial side and what happened on the residential side,” Cziok said. “I hate this time of year, because we’re in here trying to talk to you guys about what the impact on the homeowner is when a lot of this is way outside of our hands and is done to make sure that everyone in our community is paying their fair share, and their paying their share in relation to the house that they own.”